Some doctors hand out pamphlets to educate patients. Dr. Zubin Damania? He pulls on a dreadlocked wig, black skinny pants, and a leather jacket and croons about the symptoms of stroke to the tune of The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel my Face.”
“I can’t feel my face. My tongue won’t move. Am I stroking?” he sings. “Am I stroking?”
Then, he posts it onto his YouTube channel under his stage name — ZDoggMD.
Damania is an internal medicine doctor in Las Vegas, where he runs a trendy health clinic. But he’s also an over-the-top provocateur who has made nearly 50 music video parodies on medical themes, like his redo of R. Kelly’s chart-topper “Ignition (Remix)” — overhauled as “Readmissions.”
Through his alter ego, Damania wants to redefine patient education — and the image of MDs: “Doctors, as a group, are horribly boring, and risk-averse, and just terrible,” he said.
The ZDoggMD videos have racked up millions of views and have even started attracting corporate sponsors. But they’ve also stirred anger among patients who feel he’s mocking their symptoms or making light of their pain. In the stroke video, for instance, Damania’s eyes bulge with a crazed gaze, only half his face moves, and his speech is slurred. “At least I won’t need Botox now cause half my face looks young,” he sings.
That approach concerns advocates for stroke victims.
“His video may be [seen as] a mockery, with the face drooping. People might be offended by it,” said Dr. Rani Whitfield, a representative of the American Stroke Association.
Whitfield does his own twist on medical music; he calls himself the “Hip Hop Doc” and has put out an album meant to educate teens on health issues. But when it comes to serious conditions like stroke, he said, “I’d stay away from humor.”
Damania doesn’t. He acknowledges the controversy, but he doesn’t apologize for his style.
“You’re always, always going to make someone mad,” he said, “but you have to rest comfortably and embrace that, or you won’t engage patients and providers.”
His social media sites draw thousands of comments from patients and doctors who appreciate his message, along with some who take offense. To his team, that means it’s working.
“Effective messaging is always something that can be divisive,” said Devin Moore, an audio engineer who works on ZDoggMD videos.
“It works for Kanye West and Justin Bieber,” Moore said, “and it works for Zubin, too.”
‘I thought he was pretty obnoxious’
Damania, 43, has an outgoing personality, striking up conversations with the ease of an old friend and the goofiness of a class clown.
His parents, both doctors, immigrated to the United States from India before he was born. He said he was pushed to follow in their footsteps but felt torn, so he studied both music and molecular biology in college. He went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, where his quirky nature started to peek out.
“I thought he was pretty obnoxious at first,” said Dr. Harry Duh, a pediatrician who met Damania in the library during their first year of medical school, and who now cowrites the lyrics to his videos. “That sentiment has still not changed.”
After finishing medical school, Damania worked as a clinician and an adjunct professor at Stanford’s medical school. He was burned out and fed up with the field, and was desperately seeking a change of pace.
“I was just a loud-mouthed guy trying to make jokes to cope with the difficulties of the career,” he said.
“Effective messaging is always something that can be divisive. It works for Kanye West and Justin Bieber, and it works for Zubin, too.”
Devin Moore, audio engineer for ZDoggMD
To get his frustrations out — and to reach patients — he created ZDoggMD. “This is a sufficient cover,” he recalled thinking.
Even so, he was cautious at first about promoting his ZDoggMD persona, for fear that the off-color videos would harm his medical career. Duh had the same concerns.
“I didn’t feel comfortable putting myself out there on the web,” Duh said, “because it might not be very professional to do that as a doctor.”
But eventually, Damania realized that his affiliation with a major institution like Stanford was working in his favor. The place was so big, the videos flew under the administration’s radar. As his videos began to engage more and more viewers, Damania started stepping up his game.
Now, his team routinely ropes other medical professionals into their videos; they often use real nurses, doctors, and lab technicians as bit players. Damania thinks it’s good for the profession.
“You’re indoctrinated in medicine to be this persona of unfailing, perfect professionalism,” he explained. “But it’s great to see doctors being human and laughing.”
A joke falls flat
In another riff off a pop hit — this one, pop star Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” — Damania takes on a stereotypically Valley Girl voice and decks himself out in a blonde wig, heart-shaped sunglasses, and bold red lipstick to take on the opioid epidemic. He even carries a small dog in a purse.
“Don’t try to give me no NSAIDs, won’t take acetaminophen. You ain’t dealing with a novice, my pain scale starts at 10,” he sings while dumping dozens of pills on a startled doctor’s head. It’s a riff on Swift’s music video, in which she plays a reckless blonde who won’t stop at anything to get what she wants. In Damania’s version, what she wants is opioid pain pills, and she’ll make up any story to get a prescription.
“Tears flow, crocodile, as I tell you ’bout my three slipped discs, chronic migraine, RSD, and abdominal pain,” he sings.
That line about RSD refers to reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a nervous system disorder that often brings burning pain in the limbs.
Patients who suffer from RSD were not amused.
The parodies “distort what reflex sympathetic dystrophy is, and how it should be viewed,” said SaraMarie Lynn, an RSD patient and chemistry student at College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif. Her mother also has the condition.
“I’ve known at least three people with RSD who have taken their lives because they just can’t take it anymore,” she said. “[It] shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
Lynn commented on the video — “I’m so offended. I have RSD and it is hell” — and to her surprise, Damania answered, thanking her for the comment. He agreed with one point she’d made — that the condition is misunderstood in the lay community — and said he hoped the video would help raise awareness.
Duh, who collaborates on the lyrics, said he thinks long and hard about how a patient would feel watching one of the videos, and shoots down Damania’s ideas if he thinks they’re overboard.
“I try, and only sometimes succeed, in offering comments that take some of the sting away,” Duh said.
“When a video has hundreds of thousands of hits, I still think, ‘I can’t believe so many people like it. It’s so dumb.’”
Dr. Harry Duh, pediatrician and lyricist
On rare occasions, Damania acknowledges he’s gone too far.
This year, for instance, he pulled an April Fool’s Day prank that some viewers didn’t find funny. He posted a video condemning vaccines — which racked up nearly 150,000 views on YouTube. It was a joke, but wasn’t clear to all viewers.
(He later posted an response video to address the feedback he received on the importance of vaccines, which got 20,000 views.)
But controversy is also a way for Damania and his team to rack up views — and in doing so, spread their messages to far-flung audiences.
A venture capitalist bets on ZDogg
One of ZDogg’s many fans is Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com and a major investor in digital health.
“He said ‘I saw your videos. You’re kinda nuts. Quit your job at Stanford,’” Damania recalled Hsieh telling him in 2011.
Hsieh did more than offer advice: He offered Damania a job in Las Vegas with the mandate to “make health care better.”
So Damania, his wife, and two daughters packed up and moved to a city with enormous health challenges.
There, he founded Turntable Health, a primary care clinic that operates on a membership model: For $80 a month, patients get unlimited access to primary care doctors. (Outside specialists costs extra.) Patients also can take cooking classes, seek nutrition advice, and ease into an after-work downward dog in group yoga classes.
Damania and Iora Health, Turntable’s operating partner, hope that the holistic approach will curb costly, preventable illnesses in the long run. It has about 2,000 patients.
“It’s about improving outcomes, improving patient experience, and decreasing costs,” Damania explained.
With its sleek, modern design, it looks more a creative coworking space than a doctor’s office.
“Turntable is for more of the young hipsters,” explained Iora Health CEO Rushika Fernandopulle. (There’s another Iora Health clinic in Las Vegas targeted at older and chronically ill patients.)
Damania spends less time in the clinic now than he used to because he frequently travels the country to give talks on his vision for health care. He’s spoken to groups like Kaiser Permanente, AbbVie (ABBV) Pharmaceuticals, and Allied Physicians Group, and also gave a talk at TEDMED’s 2013 meeting.
He’s also active on Facebook (FB), frequently hosting live chats about issues like hospital staffing ratios and physician integrity. Earlier this month, he was hosting a live Q&A on Facebook when his 4-year-old daughter wandered onto the screen in her pink, cow-printed pajamas and stuck her face up to the camera.
“You always come in when I’m broadcasting and I love it,” he told her.
She let out a big sniffle and asked, “Daddy, can I please play with your phone?”
Unfortunately, it was in use for the chat session.
When Damania does treat patients, it’s mostly through his job as a hospitalist at University Medical Center in Las Vegas. He’s an entertainer by nature, not a straight-laced physician. But as he makes his rounds, he tries to tone down the Dogg.
Sometimes, though, his alter ego gets the best of him.
One elderly woman Damania was treating for pneumonia had seen his spoof on testicular cancer, appropriately titled “Manhood in the Mirror.” In it, the good doctor, sporting a bathrobe, grabs himself, a la Michael Jackson.
When he came in to treat her, the patient told Damania she recognized him from the video.
“I nearly passed out,” he recalled.
Gaining new corporate sponsors
Most of Damania’s videos are low-budget operations, produced in his home studio, where he has his own green screen. For more complicated videos, he enlists the help of a small production team and takes a day or two to film. He’ll often foot the bill himself — a polished video runs between $5,000 and $10,000.
He’s released nearly 50 music video parodies on YouTube, each of which has received anywhere from a few thousand to more than 1.6 million views. They’re a split between awareness-raising riffs and parodies that lament the life of a doctor, nurse, or lab rat.
He also puts out movie spoofs, behind-the-scenes videos, and recorded talks, which go out to his 35,000 YouTube subscribers. It’s all posted on his website, where he describes himself as “slightly funnier than placebo.”
Even his own team marvels at his success: “When a video has hundreds of thousands of hits,” said Duh, his lyric-writing partner, “I still think, ‘I can’t believe so many people like it. It’s so dumb.’”
ZDogg’s popularity has begun to catch the eye of corporate sponsors.
Athenahealth sponsored a video that remixed Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” into “EHR State of Mind” — a riff on the huge frustrations involved with shifting to electronic health records.
“EHR, crappy some vendor made us, there’s nothing we can do,” he belts out, wrist braces strapped on his forearms to counteract carpal-tunnel syndrome from so much typing into electronic health records.
At the end, Damania gives Athenahealth — which declined to disclose how much it paid to sponsor the video — a personal thank you.
The video has garnered more than half a million views on YouTube. “Zubin knew we were going to strike a nerve,” said Holly Spring of Athenahealth, who coordinated the partnership with Damania. “I don’t think we realized how hard we were going to strike the nerve.”
— Dr. Gail Gazelle (@GailGazelleMD) March 17, 2016
An electronic health record company that envisions itself as “reimagining the EHR,” Athenahealth was elated to have made such a splash with a video capitalizing on the shared hatred of electronic health records.
“If we can acknowledge the pain and the problems, we could be recognized as a company trying to solve it,” Spring said.
Athenahealth recently sponsored another ZDoggMD video honoring nurses with a montage of photos showing nurses at work. It ends with Damania baring his belly to reveal a permanent-marker tattoo declaring: NURZ LYFE.
‘We somewhat flooded the lab’
The making of Damania’s videos is often as haphazard as the final products.
“The thing about Zubin is he’s a consummate scientist, he’s always A/B testing everything,” said Tom Hinuber, who has produced some of Damania’s videos. (Hinuber also said Damania prides himself in buying the ugliest, weirdest things on Amazon as props.)
They try a number of different approaches once they’re on the set for videos, which are often shot in real hospitals or labs.
Sometimes, the employees are on board with having a film crew take over their workplace, and they hop into the videos. Other times, they find it irritating, like when Damania and his crew filmed “In Da Lab.” It’s a lab-safety anthem they shot at a hospital lab in Las Vegas.
“The lab techs were like, ‘What are you doing in my workspace?’” Hinuber said.
Then, Damania decided he needed to pull the lever for the lab’s emergency shower.
“This wasn’t discussed with any administrators, and they were very, very hesitant,” Hinuber said. But Damania smooth-talked them into letting him pull the lever — which normally gets tested just once a year — and he jumped under the faucet.
Everyone in the lab gathered around to watch.
“We somewhat flooded the lab,” Hinuber said, “but it’s the best moment in the video.”